February 15, 2012

The Taste Bud: The great cilantro debate

“The pubes of a demon.”

That’s how one person described the herb cilantro. Yes, some people hate this simple garnish enough to create such descriptive and venomous colloquialisms. Perhaps more highly charged than the debate over religion, and even abortion, is the one raging over this simple herb.

Personally, I love the stuff. It has a unique aroma and flavor that one can’t really find anywhere else — unless you’re a cilantro hater, in which case it would be argued one can find that aroma and flavor in any bathroom. Just look for a bar of soap.

Other descriptive phrases for cilantro include: “Metallic, dirty sock water,” “rancid chocolate,” “bloody soap coins,” “soapy lawn clippings” and “a mix of stink bug and sucking on a live battery.” (Yeah, those came from the I HATE CILANTRO Facebook page. Wow.)

LEO’s own food critic Robin Garr, who claims to like cilantro in measured proportion, even noted that the aroma is “a dead ringer for Crayolas.”

So what is this stuff that raises such controversy in the otherwise peaceful context of food? I mean, shouldn’t food be a uniting topic, like puppies or the Beatles?

Apparently not. Cilantro is nothing more than coriander leaves. Sometimes called “Chinese parsley,” it looks much like traditional parsley, but has a bolder presence and is often used in Asian and Hispanic dishes. I had my first encounter with it a number of years ago when I tried my first Puebla-style taco, and I’ve been intrigued ever since. The thing is, cilantro really is a difficult flavor to describe, but one thing is for sure: Most people either love it or hate it. A lot.

The New York Times published an article in 2010 that helped explain the mystery behind the debate. The article states, “The authoritative Oxford Companion to Food notes that the word ‘coriander’ is said to derive from the Greek word for bedbug,” and that the “cilantro aroma ‘has been compared with the smell of bug-infested bedclothes.’” Yuck.

One research study noted that aldehydes, a byproduct of soap production as well as an odor produced by certain bugs to ward off (or sometimes attract) other creatures, are present in cilantro, thus giving “cilantrophobes” their aversion.

Apparently, some researchers believe many people simply are genetically predisposed to hating cilantro, possibly because of ethnic heritage. In cultures in which it has long been widely used, people’s brains may be predisposed to acceptance, and vice versa. One researcher notes that brain acceptance of cilantro or pretty much any other flavor or aroma is about exposure, and developing positive reactions rather than negative ones.

But these cilantrophobes won’t come willingly. Check out ihatecilantro.com to find out why. Or ihatecilantro.wordpress.com, a blog written by a young woman who hates the garnish so much that she incorporated it into her wedding vows. No, there are many who will not willingly give cilantro a fair chance.

Pubes of a demon, indeed.

I conducted a very unscientific survey (which is to say, I posted the “love it or hate it” question on my Facebook page), and in the 36 responses, most were pro-cilantro, even if only in moderation.

One friend noted that it’s “not good in cereal” (really?), but another said she uses cilantro, jalapeño and lime to stuff her Thanksgiving turkey every year. “I never have turkey left,” she said.

Another friend posted, “Give me a bowl and a fork, and I can finish it as a salad! (I have done this.)”

And yet another opined, “I’m hoping the people who think it tastes like soap will gradually fade from the gene pool.”

Ouch.

Well, for my part, I bought a bunch of the stuff at the Holiday Manor Kroger the other day (it was just over a buck for a giant wad) to use when I make chicken tacos at home, which I do a lot. And as part of the research for this Taste Bud, I decided to overdo it one day — just pile it on, to see where my limits were.

Aaaaand … it was delicious. For whatever reason, my taste buds seem to welcome it at even high levels. So maybe I’ll go to cafepress.com to buy an “I (heart) cilantro” T-shirt, or at least become an avid reader of the blog fuckyeahcilantro.tumblr.com (this actually exists), because I’m a cilantrophile to the extreme.

You say pubes of a demon? I say “eyelashes of an angel.” Meanwhile? Let the debate rage on.